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My Loose Thread
Dennis Cooper
Edinburgh & New York: Canongate, 2002.
£9.99, $18.00, 126 pages, ISBN 1-84195-274-5.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

In my Cercles review of Pandora's Handbag, I pointedly praised Elizabeth Young's handling of "alternative" writers like Dennis Cooper. I am still not very satisfied with the adjective "alternative", but it is hard to find a suitable way to qualify Cooper's very particular fiction. I then stated that his subject-matter was mostly the evisceration of teenage boys. This has, I am glad to write, somewhat changed. He is still the heir of Sade, O’Connor, Genet, Burroughs, Bataille, even Céline. He is still the literary equivalent of what a cinematic cross between Pier Paolo Pasolini and Gregg Araki would be, and he occasionally continues to recall Nelson Algren and John Rechy. But even if few boys are eviscerated in My Loose Thread, the novel is a far cry from the basically mainstream works of Gary Indiana or Alan Hollinghurst (I wonder why reviewers keep on making those groundless comparisons).

Cooper’s success is very much a succès de scandale; as he himself told Elizabeth Young: “I’m much more famous than I’m read. I’m famous for this gay thing, transgressive sex, for being experimental and being wild and being into punk.” Queer Nation activists have sent him death threats. Few creators are as sulfurous as Cooper today. Even pop musicians such as Blur's Alex James or, more surprisingly, Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson ran away from him.

Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson both refused to let me write cover stories on them for Spin Magazine because they were afraid I'd out them as poseurs. They consider themselves to be very daring and extreme, and I think the fact that I'm more daring and extreme intimidated them. (3 A.M. Magazine, interview Stephen Lucas, November 2001)

My Loose Thread (a tremendously metafictional title) is different from Cooper's previous novels simply because he has finished his (in)famous five-novel George Miles cycle, composed of Closer (1989), Frisk (1991), Try (1994), Guide (1997) and Period (2000). God save us from biographical criticism, but there apparently was a George Miles in Cooper's life, whose tragic life and mental condition, along with Cooper's own literarily welcome neuroses inspired those five novels. "I sometimes think I only write to get this shit out of my head," he told The Independent's Nick Taylor. Don't we all? Nick Taylor in a 1998 interview mentioned Cooper's "legendary lackadaisical style", his "well-crafted careless teenage whine". If the subject-matter were different, his characters "could easily be speaking straight from soapland," wrote Taylor. Actually, no soap or sitcom writer would dare go that far. TV's fictional teenagers do occasionally come up with complete sentences, which sometimes include words of more than one syllable.

But that is the whole point. With dialogue that often sounds as if it had been recorded over lunch at some Californian high school integrated in highly intricate structural feats, Cooper speaks of America's moral decay and mental sickness. He is really a moralist, just like Bret Easton Ellis. If you thought Sam Mendes's 1999 American Beauty was making a powerful statement, read Cooper, his novels make American Beauty as socially significant as garlic bread.

My Loose Thread is about a teenager named Larry, a splendidly unreliable narrator, who may or may not be gay (but what is gay anyway?), who may or may not have killed one of his best friends (but what is friendship anyway?), and who may or may not have (had) incestuous relationships with his thirteen-year-old brother Jim. One thing is certain: he is very perturbed, to put it mildly. The book is obsessed with the notion of truth, in the way Greek classics or Romantic poetry could be, but also evoking some of Jorge Luis Borges or John Barth's musings on the subject. What is truth? What is fiction? Who are those high school Nazis really? A little notebook / diary kept by a boy who may be dead may hold some answers. My Loose Thread was largely inspired by the Columbine massacre, and other violent episodes of American teen hell. It marks a significant departure from the George Miles cycle in its relative absence of adult figures. There are no thirty-something "perverts" obsessing about the pale bodies of white underage boys in this novel, only white underage boys obsessing about themselves in a characteristically meaningless world, albeit less drug-ridden.

The readers who mistook "Dennis Cooper" the narrator with Dennis Cooper the author in parts of the George Miles cycle will understand I think with My Loose Thread that nothing is so simple in Cooper's fiction. Drug-induced hallucinations, therapeutic exorcising fantasies and literary exercices de style are not to be confused with autobiographical accounts.

Critics are divided when it comes to naming Cooper's literary ancestors (and why are we so obsessed with literary lineage anyway, is it our usual fear of not finding the right little box?), but I am positive no-one will deny his heir is in more ways than one the remarkable teenage author J. T. Leroy, one of the best things to have come from (the wrong side of the tracks in) America lately. With two books, Sarah (2000) and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2001), Leroy has forced many critics to reconsider their definition of literature. Unsurprisingly, Cooper and Leroy have become friends.

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